Monday, September 27, 2010

How often do chemists divorce?

In a recent study of data from the 2000 Census, one could find the divorce rate of chemists: 12.01%. I found this number to be high, even though it was below the overall divorce rate of 16%.

(From a Washington Post article on the study: "Dancers and choreographers registered the highest divorce rates (43.1 percent), followed by bartenders (38.4 percent) and massage therapists (38.2 percent). Also in the top 10 were casino workers, telephone operators, nurses and home health aides. Three types of engineers -- agricultural, sales and nuclear engineers -- were represented among the 10 occupations with the lowest divorce rates. Also reporting low marital breakup rates were optometrists (4 percent), clergy (5.6 percent) and podiatrists (6.8 percent).")

What contributes to the divorce rate of chemists? I dunno, but one of the things HAS to be the long-distance relationships engendered by what's called the two-body problem, or the difficulty of finding two science jobs in the same metropolitan area. In a rather wonderful comment thread on the organic professorships post, bad wolf has an interesting theory about chemist/professor marriages:
"I think there was a generational shift in the last X years. Professors up to the 1960s or so met their wives as undergrads. They were rarely chemistry PhDs themselves, and were either housewives or had relatively flexible careers (K-12 teaching, eg). Also the PhDs only spent 3 or so years in grad school.

A generation later many grad students meet significant others IN grad school. Schools have more gender parity (even in chem), students spend long hours and long years getting their degrees and often pair up with people with very similar interests.

When the couple then looks for a job and they have to take 2 (almost identical) careers into account you have departments having to hire or make some employment arrangements for the trailing spouse. Unfortunately if the trailer is not as motivated to be a PI you have departments stuffed with nonproductive faculty."
I think bad wolf is on to something. My anecdotal experience agrees that the two-body problem is something that occupies our generation of chemists a little more than previous generations; I've been told innumerable times how fortunate I am to have a wife that 'can work anywhere!' (She can't, but compared to a professor of organic chemistry, her career is a lot more portable.) I suspect it might even be the #1 contributor to chemist marriage stress.

Unemployment would have to be something that contributes to scientist marriage stress; I predict that the divorce rate for chemists for the 2010 Census will be higher. We'll see.


  1. Massage therapists have a high divorce rate? Why, do they rub each other the wrong way? (Badum TISH! Thanks folks, I'll be here all week.)

    True, women don't go to college to get their 'MRS' degree any more, and I think you may be on to something with the two-body problem idea. But I am kind of surprised that chemists don't have a higher divorce rate. The egos on a lot of chemists I've met are pretty huge, and I've often wondered how their spouses can stand them.

  2. Re egos: why would you marry someone with a huge ego, unless you had an equally large ability to fend it off or control it?

  3. Maybe you married them before their ego developed.

    (And P.S. Don't forget to tip your server.)

  4. A new line for the vows? 'Richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, large ego or small'?

  5. I wonder if there isn't a kinetic factor here in that we may have a second order reaction where where the rate determining step may be the marriage not the divorce. It could be that the marriage rate is low among chemists with money and the "two body problem" contributing to the activation barrier. Thus, once the activated complex is formed the divorce rate may appear to be similar but the absolute rate is quite different. Just sayin'.


    Here is someone blogging about a fascinating article I think we all read a while ago, and more or less describes our climate of courtship.

    I also remember reading an interesting article about how the grant fraud investigations were derailed by investigating the online porn usage at the national labs.

    In short, maybe academic chemists have some some of the most sexual dysfunction of any profession I know of. Which doesn't really help them get married in the first place.

    I don't think that the divorce rate is rather high (It's surprisingly low!). I think it's more reflective of those that do choose to get married in the field in the first place. Perhaps it's the older generation? Or couples who are more disciplined to put up with the rigors of the lifestyle, if not the academic lifestyle? (I mean, there is no industrial chemist's lifestyle anymore)

    Chemists are not idealistic and I don't think most of us will delude ourselves into getting involved in a marriage that is doomed to fail. Those that start out idealists often have it brutally taken out of them.

    I know in my experience, I'm just kind of burned out. I have all these unrefined relationships across the country that feel about as put together as an undergraduate research project. I guess I've fared luckier than most, but still ... marriage?

  7. What about long hours working in the lab? Surely a strain of home life?

  8. Don't forget the many female Chemistry Ph.Ds with non-pH.D. husbands. These non-traditional roles can add to the stress of marriage. When the wife is the bread-winner and the husband not, the husband can feel inadequate and not happy in the relationship.

    Believe it or not, this is very common.

  9. @chemicalspace: David is righter than I; doubtless, long hours is probably a larger contributor than the 2-body problem.

    @Kerri: That is an interesting observation and one that could be tested easily, if the data were available. (I don't believe that it is.)

  10. Anecdotal, but I can think of quite a few chemists I know who survived long periods of being apart from their significant others, especially during their Ph.D's/postdocs. Perhaps you could chalk it up to very few opportunities for temptation when you're working long hours in the lab.

    FWIW my Cambridge landlord, who has catered almost exclusively to grad students/postdocs over the past 20 years, observed that chemists were very loyal to their mates, "physicists not so much".

    1. Chemists are usually more interested in bonding than physicists.


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